RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Tsunamis Hit Prairies Too

On Dec. 25, at 6:58 a.m. Missouri time, an earthquake struck in the Indian Ocean and the impact forced out a wall of water going 300 miles per hour. A couple of hours later, the wall reached an estimated thirty-three feet high, sped up to 500 miles per hour, hit land and killed more than 150,000 people.

In Missouri, about 9,000 surface miles from the earthquake, everything was normal at 6:58, but at 7:30, sensors in an Ozark monitoring well registered a rise in the ground water of 8.5 inches. A half hour later, the Ozark well dropped back to nearly normal. This was, remember, two hours before the tsunami hit Thailand.

Other monitoring wells showed a slight rise and drop, but the activity at the well near Aurora was remarkable. University geologists think that perhaps the karst structure of the land, full of calcified caves, passages and holes, explains the mystery. The karst may have held water until the shock hit, then compressed and squeezed the water out, raising the level in the wells, and then recovered. So think of the world as a soggy, partially calcified sponge ball. Or not. At any rate, the rise and fall had to do with rock, water, air and an earthquake thousands of miles away.

A journey of 9,000 miles in a half hour is something to ponder. The shockwave didn't travel by surface miles through air, of course, but took a shortcut through the heart of earth by way of rock and water. Nobody knows exactly how it works.

The earth's behavior in this instance leads to a bunch of questions. Like: How can we ignore the events on one side of the planet when they affect the whole of our home on this rocky, watery globe?

Let's not attempt that climb. Instead, let's start on a whole, new, more earthbound one.

A few weeks before the earthquake, University of Missouri agronomist Reid Smeda told weed colleagues at their annual meeting of another kind of unexpected disruption. A Roundup-resistant variety of ragweed had been found in central Missouri. It is "resistant to up to 10 times the rate of glyphosate herbicide normally used to control common ragweed."

This is, in fact, the third Roundup-resistant weed identified by scientists. Ryegrass and marestail were the first two. Those plants join some non-weed varieties that can't be killed by what was 10 years ago considered the world's most potent herbicide.

Resistance to Roundup was engineered into canola, corn and soybeans on purpose, and nobody knows how they jumped from the "useful" species to the "weeds." And, like communication between rock, water and air, we may never fully understand this genius of communication. Man's idea was to create plants that could be doused with herbicide and survive. So when the entire field was doused, resistant plants would be king of the fields and get all the nutrients without having to share with the weeds. See how clever we are?

But the farmers knew the potential for problems. When they were presented with this genius of engineering, the farmers knew that gene-transfer was a possibility. I was at the early meetings when GMO crops were first introduced and I heard farmers ask, "What about resistance? What about weeds that might become resistant? What about buildup of chemicals on the fields?"

The correct answer was, "Nobody knows," but scientists and seed salesmen sold farmers out. They said that gene transfer could never happen, and they said it with that authority that closes the dialogue. The scientists and salesmen said, "Farmers need to adopt the new technologies because the world depends on farmers growing a lot of food."

After posing as humanitarians and authorities one day, the corporate representatives became bullies the next. They sold bankers on the concept of genetic engineering just as they sold bankers on the concept of "bigger is better." With control of financing, the corporations had a clear field.

And the scientists and salesmen sold consumers out. GMO crops are now main ingredients in ordinary food. There's no labeling, so unless you are scrupulous, stick to organic products and ask questions, you don't know whether you're eating GMOs. Nobody knows.

Can GMO consumption be linked to rising allergic reactions to peanuts and soy? Can GMOs be linked to diabetes, obesity, cancer? Nobody knows. The tests haven't been run. Or, if they've been run and showed the crops to be dangerous, they've been suppressed.

Now this tsunami of scientific arrogance picks up speed. The scientists and seed salesmen are pushing crops with engineered genes to deliver medication to the infirm. They are being planted this season, perhaps in a field near you. Investigator Kurt Kiebler says there are at least two sites in Missouri.

What kind of monsters, untested and unkillable, will come of this? How will consumers in the future be sure to get nutrition rather than unwanted medication in our corn chips and soy milk? Nobody knows.

Nobody knows.


Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email